Illustration by Peter Bennett

In a memorable passage in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera observed that over the previous two centuries the European blackbird had abandoned the woods and begun inhabiting cities. This invasion of the human world, he concluded, was a profound planetary change, reminding us that history doesn’t simply belong to men.

His words came back to me when I first heard about SARS, the aggressive pneumonia that evidently began with some birds in provincial China and is now killing people as far away as Toronto. Here was the kind of potential pandemic that would normally send our media into a fear-mongering fiesta, and if the incessant Iraq coverage had no other value, it spared us the predictable onslaught of alarmist reports (“SARS in the Southland. Is it safe to leave the house?”) and unsettling flashbacks to 1918, when the Spanish influenza wiped out 20 million people (!) — more than were killed in World War I. Viruses, too, have a history.

Although the SARS outbreak now seems to have been checked, the paranoia lives on. Airlines keep canceling flights to Asia. The press tells tales of “superspreader” Esther Mok, who passed the virus to over 100 people in Singapore. Newscasts beam eerie images from Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of pedestrians walk the streets in surgical masks, as if they’ve just stepped from the pages of a lost book by Don DeLillo.

By sheer coincidence, DeLillo is himself currently in the news for his slim novel Cosmopolis, sort of a miniaturized Ulysses that, set over a single day, charts a solipsistic billionaire’s ride across Manhattan in his white stretch limo (wherein he gets, among other things, a prostate exam). The book’s shockingly harsh reception demonstrates that, just like blackbirds and viruses, literary reputations have their own histories and ecologies.

DeLillo, of course, spent most of the last two decades being hailed as a literary titan, a seer of postmodern America’s aluminum-bright skies and gloomy, CIA-run underworlds. He won prestigious awards, garnered rapturous reviews, even achieved the odd best-seller; awestruck writers spoke of his sentences the way Man Show viewers do Jennifer Lopez’s rump. Supremely ambitious and clever as hell, his books shimmered with dazzling riffs on the blips and big bangs of corporate techno-culture. His gift for Metaphysical Pop made him into something of a literary superspreader, whose influence is obvious in the fiction of Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace and many, many others.

Although no writer came closer to scripting 9/11 than DeLillo, ironically enough, none has been more damaged by its fallout. Shortly after the attacks on the twin towers, he wrote a widely disparaged piece for Harper’s that not only failed in its guru function (he proved no wiser about terrorism than the rest of us) but featured a waxed-mummy prose that let no humanity show through; he seemed embalmed in his style. Suddenly, you heard people pointing out his books’ limitations, grumbling that even his characters’ dialogue sounds exactly like, well, Don DeLillo. Just as the world was realizing his ideas about “The Age of Terror,” his perpetual air of chilly, precise detachment cut him off from the national mood; he began to seem like the voice of an earlier historical moment.

Now comes Cosmopolis, which has been greeted with bad, even contemptuous, notices. Naturally, not everybody has been disrespectful. One of my favorite critics, John Leonard, simply ducked the question of the novel’s quality in Harper’s, while over at The New Yorker, literary politician John Updike pulled one of his slyest maneuvers — playing the generous grandee with a rival’s lesser work. Still, when it came to the reviews that everyone would talk about, things were brutal.

The book got pilloried by the New Republic’s superb, unsparing James Wood, who’s perhaps a wee bit vain about being the Last Serious Critic. Back in 1997, Wood wrote the definitive review of Underworld, a piece admirable for its nuanced assessment of DeLillo’s strengths and limitations. In fact, that essay was so fine that his decision to vivisect a minor novel like Cosmopolis feels not just superfluous but inquisitorial. This time, Wood neatly reveals the chinks in what always seemed unassailable about DeLillo, those shiny metallic sentences, yet the overall effect is less illuminating than churlish — like pointing out patches of cellulite on an ex–beauty queen’s thighs as she leaves the maternity ward.

The review was even harsher in The New York Times Book Review, which periodically rouses itself from its torpid, institutional politesse and leads a sacred cow to the abattoir: It’s the editors’ way of kidding themselves that they’re engaged in lively cultural debate. Last year, Colson Whitehead creamed Richard Ford. This year the NYTBR assigned Cosmopolis to Walter Kirn, whose earlier pan of Underworld made it clear he thought DeLillo a fraud and a bum. And guess what? He still does. Here he mocks DeLillo’s “fossilized academic futurism” and, in a generational gibe, suggests that he lost touch with reality in 1968. Not irrelevantly, Kirn is himself a novelist — indeed, his most recent book, Up in the Air, is fairly dripping with DeLillo’s DNA — and he sounds like a kid who wants his old man to step aside so he can run the family business.

Although I myself have been known to call DeLillo overrated (while reading every single one of his novels), Wood’s and Kirn’s reviews crackle with so much casual violence that I kept wishing I could say that Cosmopolis is a good book. It’s not. DeLillo’s books have always come in two kinds, full-cream or nonfat (he’s got Pynchon whispering in one ear, Beckett in the other), and this new one has been so skimmed of recognizable human feeling that its characters feel freeze-dried. Even its fund-manager protagonist is merely a pretext for DeLillo’s metaphors for the soul-killing power of money in the digital era. The novel doesn’t have a tenth the life of John Lanchester’s tenderly funny Mr. Phillips, another book about a single day, much less the teeming Ulysses.

But even if Cosmopolis is a failure, so what? Most good writers have duff books on their résumés, yet what we finally love (and judge) them for is their best work. In DeLillo’s case, that’s probably Americana, the book that announced his enormous talent, the first two-thirds of The Names (before it became Heart of Darkness with no Mistuh Kurtz), his masterpiece White Noise, which spoofs and anatomizes our wised-up culture’s desperate attempts at meaning, and the ravishing 100 or so pages about his Bronx childhood in Underworld, the freest and most heartfelt writing he’s ever done. At his finest, DeLillo is a wizard who can invent an imaginary Lenny Bruce monologue, evoke an Athenian street with a few breathtaking strokes, or theorize about car-crash movies with such brio that he could land a movie-critic job at any publication in America. And he does all this within an absolutely distinctive sensibility: Say “DeLillo” and you call up an entire vision of the universe.

Jerzy Kosinski once noted that the difference between European culture and American culture was that we have no memory or respect for writers’ past achievements. In Europe, he said, a writer like Fitzgerald could’ve dined out for the rest of his life for having authored The Great Gatsby. Here, the attitude is, “Sure, the guy wrote one great book, but what did he do after that? Turned into a drunk.”

While Kosinski was doubtless romanticizing the Europe he fled (a few years ago, Der Spiegel ran a cover photo of a literary critic ripping up a new Günter Grass novel), he was surely right about America, which more and more treats its writers like show-biz figures who are no better than their last project or as celebrities we enjoy seeing get theirs.

That’s why I find myself welcoming the first issue of the new literary magazine The Believer, which offers itself as a determinedly optimistic alternative to cheaply nasty (or “snarky”) book-review politics and small-magazine demolition jobs. As its opening statement pointedly declares, “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.”

The Believer is the latest self-consciously adorable offspring of the McSweeney’s empire, whose leader, Dave Eggers, has an obvious knack for marketing his trademark blend of the earnest and the cute. While I’m old enough to be driven nuts by the McSweeney’s crew’s belief that you demonstrate your sincerity by constantly announcing it — I can just imagine DeLillo filleting such an idea in a novel — I’m willing to give a break to any magazine whose opening number boasts a cover by Charles Burns, a family tree of Magical Realism (albeit one that omits Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), a shrewd piece on the Bay Area’s self-defeating culture of protest, and, above all, Ed Park’s celebration of my favorite living American writer, Charles Portis, whose great comic novel The Dog of the South established him as our homegrown Gogol. The Believer is wildly uneven, but in a world of superspreaders, its affection for writing and writers is one thing I wouldn’t mind catching on fast.

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